Counter-Terrorism: The Special Forces Scrutinize FaceBook

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April 26, 2015: After years of informally using social networking sites and Internet activity in general to find, monitor and sometimes manipulate terrorist suspects U.S. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) revealed in recent Congressional hearings that this is becoming a more formal technique. This will involve custom software for more effectively searching social media and training SOCOM personnel in how best to handle potentially useful information. This will involve using the cultural and language skills of Special Forces operators to more effectively seek out and evaluate terrorist threats. The Special Forces has one of the largest collections of experienced counter-terrorism operators who know the culture and languages of areas where there is a lot of Islamic terrorist activity. These soldiers have spent years learning about cultures and languages and honed that knowledge by actually operating in those areas. In addition to combat missions, most of the time Special Forces are usually there for advising and training local forces in their own language and with a knowledge of local languages. The CIA has long seen Special Forces as a primary source of expert analysts and field operatives.

Social networking sites and Internet activity has long been a major source of information for intelligence and police agencies. There is an irony in this because sites like Facebook and Twitter are also hailed as catalysts for revolution and social change. While that's true, these sites have also been a big help to those seeking to detect and prevent criminal behavior. This can have fatal consequences in dictatorships, where the police and intel groups can use data gathering and analysis tools (developed for marketing via the Internet) to find people who are protesting or rebelling against the government. Even if these Facebook users are using codes and pseudonyms to remain hidden, the scanning and analysis tools can often uncover them. Twitter traffic can also be analyzed for useful information on who is doing what and where they are.

Social networking sites are thus a double edged sword. They can be used to organize, inform, and mobilize large groups. But in doing this you provide the secret police a lot of information you would rather not share with them. Islamic terror groups advise their members to avoid social networking sites, but that has proved hard to enforce. Social networking was designed to be alluring, as well as useful, especially to the young. For young revolutionaries, this can be a fatal attraction.

Intelligence agencies, especially in the United States, were quick to adopt commercial techniques used for BI (Business Intelligence, or corporate espionage) and data mining operations and applying it to the massive quantities of real time data on the Internet. The CIA developed software to gather all this Internet information, filter and organize it and then turn it over to analysts to be sorted out, or, in many cases, translated more accurately. That last bit was necessary because machine translation software can automatically translate all those tweets and postings so that stuff can be identified and put in a data base. But in order to get really useful (to the CIA) intelligence you need skilled linguists and analysts to double check and also find out if the selecting and sorting software needs to be tweaked (it often does).

This massive, real-time combing of social media and open (to anyone) message traffic has yielded a much more accurate and timely analysis of political, religious, cultural, and military trends worldwide. It has also made the deployment of agents and other scarce resources (reconnaissance and electronic eavesdropping satellites, aircraft, and ships) more effective.

The FBI, Homeland Security, and military intelligence have similar data gathering and analysis systems for gathering all sorts of useful information. Other nations are establishing similar systems, often using commercial software sold to marketing firms and large corporations.

 


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